How do we go back once restrictions are lifted?

The way college teams packed up and left their campuses was exemplary - the way they go back can be even better, writes principal Phil Sayles

Phil Sayles

How can college staff and students go back into their institutions after the coronavirus restrictions are lifted?

How we go back, into our colleges, to resume education in a physical environment, will be massively on the minds of all college leaders. Not knowing when we will go back, and whether it will be piecemeal or "whole hog" isn’t making the calculations any easier, though this uncertainty is understandable.

Having marched most of our students and staff out of colleges up to the "higher ground" of home and virtual learning for their protection, we do know when we march them back down again that, unlike communities ravaged by floods or other disasters, our physical infrastructure will be ready and waiting, even in campuses mothballed for weeks or months.


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Potential for blended learning

Flush the water systems, plug back in the monitors hastily plonked on the rear seats of cars a month ago, hope for a PPE delivery by September to replace stocks willingly and essentially diverted to the medical front line, and campuses will be back. Maybe a few more things than that.

Additionally, in terms of the real potential for blended learning, parts of the sector that were behind the curve have been propelled, Back to the Future-style, into the present.

Compared with much of the economy, and many of our employer clients, we also know that many of our income streams remain in place – though this will be cold comfort for the many colleges whose cashflow, sustainability and operating positions are being quickly undermined by a plunge in income from apprenticeships, which may be long-lived.

When we go back, the operating environment will be far more challenging than the process of leaving, even for all the comfort of returning to shared physical spaces. Maybe for a while, these will seem less comfortable anyway as social distancing continues. Will the proximity of others feel strange or welcome? It will need to be managed and led, for sure, with new protocols, physical arrangements and training for everyone.

Questions yet to be answered

A hundred questions, currently being exposed to the air, but still up in it, will need to be answered. How will our new student intake have coped with months out of education? Equally, how will our teams be faring? The psychological and social jarring effect of the lockdown and its economic and cultural effects on lives, are as yet little understood, including by ourselves as individuals.

How will students, who have missed months of hands-on learning be assessed as ready to progress, or "fit to practice"? How will our clients, businesses we have worked with for years, as they grew, be faring in the enormous economic shake-up that has begun, and which will run and run? How many will be gone? What will a bruised NHS and other public services need from us? Or the predicted 2 million more unemployed?

How colleges support this new world at a societal level is already being debated, as is how our regulators could respond to the crisis with prioritisation, support and flexibility.

Changing priorities

But there is another dimension to how we go back: our organisational culture and practice, which we should not ignore. The move to off-campus working was immediate and visceral. Priorities were identified and ways to meet them found. Straight away. Any long-lived processes or protocols that weren’t directly purposeful were suspended without hesitation, effectively left behind on desks and left unsaid in empty offices.

Has this perhaps been rather liberating, delivering for some a cultural acceleration just as potent as the educational one? We need to decide whether this change is temporary, or becomes permanent.

To get through the changes in our world, in the world, our focus, prioritisation and working practices will need to be even sharper than they have been in the last, extraordinary month. So, if a college has history, or pockets of bad habits and blocking behaviours, or unhelpful cultural hotspots, returning to campus after this period away could be the opportunity to deal with them: "That was how it was done in the past. Circumstances have changed. This is how we are going to reset things, and do them in the future for the benefit of all our students, colleagues and communities."

Over-complex processes and analysis? Cut to the chase. If more direct, faster meetings, under the ticking clock of online concentration spans have worked, let’s keep them when we sit around tables again. If the less formal, novel, social aspects of meetings on Microsoft Teams or Zoom have added to teamwork, fun and understanding, carry on. Paper. Er, no. Or at least, many, many forests less.

I may be wrong, and it may in fact be just a relief to get back over the threshold of our colleges after weeks and months in the virtual world. It may be we go back with more direct wounds and losses. But I prefer a plan that does not go back directly to the organisational and cultural status quo, but which challenges us to go back better and ready for a changed world.

Phil Sayles is principal and chief executive of Selby College

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